Welcome to , an ongoing series at Mashable that looks at how to take care of – and deal with – the kids in your life. Because Dr. Spock is nice and all, but it’s 2019 and we have the entire internet to contend with.
A new song featuring superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda is out this week, and the backstory involves a Utah teen’s bike ride to karate and a top-rated podcast for kids.
It’s an unusual combination— a bike ride to karate, a rapping dragon and the creator of Hamilton. But it’s standard fare for the thousands who regularly stream the Story Pirates podcast. (the group of the same name) seeks out kids’ stories, which its creative team then “steals” and turns into sketch comedy and songs, sometimes snagging celebrities to help.
The Stirling family of Heber City, Utah, including Jonah, the original author behind “The Wizard,” and his brothers, ages 6, 10 and 12, are big fans.
“When I was riding my bike to karate one day, this idea popped into my head,” said Jonah, now 14. “I’d been thinking a lot about stories about magic, the old Arthurian tales about Merlin, and I thought it would be funny to make up a background story for Merlin. And then, after karate, when I got home, I had to write it all down.”
He submitted the 150-word story soon after he wrote it, and “The Wizard” was included this year in a podcast episode, a Story Pirates concert with the Utah Symphony and, now, on the new album, featuring Miranda.
Securing Miranda for a track might seem like an unlikely coup, but the star is a longtime fan of Story Pirates. Miranda and Tommy Kail, who would later direct Hamilton, helped produce the Story Pirates’ first season in 2004. Back then, the group was performing in schools and small theaters.
Fast forward to today, and the Story Pirates continues its school and public performances, often drawing sold-out crowds. But it’s also added a critically-acclaimed chapter book series; an award-winning first album, Nothing Is Impossible; and the , which typically ranks daily as a top podcast for kids on iTunes.
“We’re the overnight success story that took 15 years to happen,” said Benjamin Salka, co-founder and CEO.
Finding time for podcasts
Celebrity fans like Miranda give the Story Pirates’ world a boost. Recent podcast guests include musician Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, actor Timothy Simons of Veep and comedian John Oliver.
But Salka and Story Pirates co-founder and artistic director Lee Overtree also credit the growth to the burgeoning interest in podcasts. “Families are slowly figuring out how podcasts fit into their lives, especially as an alternative to screen time,” Overtree said.
Parents tell them that Story Pirates saves their car rides or makes bedtime wrangling easier. In the Stirling house, when a new podcast is released on Thursdays, mom Katie Stirling usually finds her boys already listening to it during breakfast.
“We’ve always been more of a listening family,” Katie Stirling said. “We can have something playing and people can sit and listen and use their imagination. I like that a lot better than everything being filled in for them with a screen.”
Said Owen Stirling, 6: “I like it because when I’m listening to it, I think about it in my head.”
‘Way funnier than adults’
Regardless of how they reach children, Salka and Overtree say the goal has always remained the same: instilling a love of learning and creative expression. Their nonprofit, , brings literacy programs to schools around the country.
“What we’re really trying to do is show kids that the key to making school amazing, the key to making learning amazing and life amazing is learning to value and express your own inner world and share it,” Overtree said.
And kids come up with some spectacular ideas, he said. “Once you are given access to the creative output of kids, you immediately realize they are way funnier than adults.”
There’s more to come for Story Pirates, including some potential television opportunities. But, this week, they’re focused on Backstroke Raptor and that contribution from an old friend. As they got the new album ready, on a whim, Overtree messaged Miranda to see if he wanted in.
“He wrote me right back, and he said that he and his son had just listened to the podcast all day on the way to a … birthday party the day before,” Overtree said. “He said, ‘Yeah, send it to me.’ It happened pretty fast. … I was pretty blown away.”
Back in Utah, Jonah, who just finished a role in a local production of The Music Man and knows Hamilton by heart, is over the moon. “I was absolutely stunned,” he said. “… I never thought that something I would do would be seen by people like Lin-Manuel Miranda.”
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